SOME are household names, others less so or even quite obscure. So here’s a question for your next pub quiz. What do Russian President Vladimir Putin and Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of Equatorial Guinea, have in common?

Well, to begin with, excluding monarchs, they are both among some of the world leaders who have held power the longest.

This weekend, 77-year-old President Obiang will have been in power for a staggering 40 years, a record time for any current president in the world.

You have to go all the way back to August 3, 1979, to mark the day that Obiang overthrew his uncle, the dictator Francisco Macias Nguema, who was shot two months later. In the intervening decades, Obiang claims to have foiled at least 10 coup or assassinations against him, all the time accusing the country’s army, political opposition or foreign powers alternately.

In that same period, Obiang’s rule of Equatorial Guinea has often been cited by human rights groups like Amnesty International as one where repressive measures such as torture, extra judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and the persecution of political activists and human rights defenders is commonplace.

Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world, a place where Obiang’s cohorts in power have a penchant for investing in luxury private mansions in Europe rather than helping rid the country of its widespread poverty.

By comparison to Obiang, as world leaders go, Vladimir Putin is of course a comparative new kid on the block, even if his time in the Kremlin is now fast approaching 20 years.

Yes, it really has been that long since the steely Russian president stepped into the Kremlin and the world sat up and took notice.

Earlier this year, after almost three decades in power, an autocratic neighbour of Putin, Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, himself one of the last political survivors of the former Soviet Union, finally resigned, effectively taking him off what has sometimes in derisory terms been dubbed the “leaders for life” list.

Following the stepping down of Nazarbayev, and with Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to end his re-election bid and the fall of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir in the face of mass protests, perhaps now is as good a time as any to examine just what it is that helps keep such leaders in power for so long.

Currently, according to the independent watchdog organisation Freedom House that monitors freedom and democracy around the world, the 20 or so longest-serving leaders in the world all represent countries considered “not free” by the organisation’s criteria.

That the first 23 of these leaders are also all men speaks volumes too about the ways global political structures remain weighted.

Indeed, it’s not until number 24 on the list that one comes across what is deemed a “free country,” or indeed a female leader, in this case Germany’s Angela Merkel.

In a world where political power is a slippery thing and can vanish with one wrong move, just what is it then that helps keep the world’s longest serving leaders in power?

“At the very essence of it is the hunger for continued power,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg, who as a former director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) has spent years monitoring and researching the role of many leaders on a continent that is home to half of the 24 longest-serving leaders and five of the top seven But as well as the human desire for authority and prestige, Van Woudenberg also points to other purely more practical factors at play in preventing many leaders, especially in Africa, from standing down willingly or gracefully.

“Retiring as a head of state in Africa doesn’t usually come with a lot of benefits,” the now current executive editor of Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) told Newsweek magazine in an interview.

“Very few African countries – in fact, almost none – have any kind of pension or security scheme for former presidents or heads of state. So out of power means out of money,” says Van Woudenberg.

IN Africa’s case, ever since the turn of the 21st century, the trend of entrenched leadership had spread across the region. In its wake it often spurred corruption, instability, social division and economic stagnation. While that trend might now show signs of reversing, it has persisted for so long for a variety of reasons.

As a recent study by the US-based international affairs think tank the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) concluded, many of Africa’s leaders increasingly secured longer terms through “constitutional coups”, proposing amendments for approval by the legislature or judiciary, or in national referenda, that allowed for additional terms in office.

Around 2000 this pattern grew more frequent when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional term limits. Since then, says CFR, some 17 heads of state have tried to remain in power by adjusting their countries’ constitutions.

Among them was Namibian president Sam Nujoma in 1998, followed by Gnassingbe Eyadema, the president of Togo, in 2002. One year later, the Gabonese parliament voted to remove term limits from its constitution, allowing president Omar Bongo to run for a sixth term.

This quickly became regular practice, occurring every few years in African nations as widespread as Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda.

Another reason for Africa’s recurring third-term problem is the lack of an effective political opposition in many countries, say analysts.

“The opposition to these constitutional changes comes from inside,” says Phil Clark, lecturer in comparative international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

“It tends to come from domestic oppositions, rather than the African Union or regional powers or international donors,” Clark is quoted by Newsweek as saying.

He goes on to cite Rwanda as one example, which although widely considered a one-party state, has several opposition parties, though none offers a credible challenge to current president Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Should some opposition parties ever pose a threat to the status quo, of course, many ruling African governments and leaders think nothing of quashing their challengers. In the past, military coups were once common as a means to seize power, with both Equatorial Guinea’s president Obiang and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni entering their presidencies this way.

In all, in Africa there were 27 successful coups from 1970 to 1982, but only 12 from 2000 to 2012, and just the one against Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe since then, according to CFR analysis.

It would of course be very wrong to single out Africa as the sole prime region where the rulers of countries have held on to power for long periods through nefarious or authoritarian means.

From Latin America to Europe, from the Middle East to Asia, there are many examples of those who qualify in the “leaders for life” stakes. At their disposal is a varied bag of political strategies and tricks.

A small number of rulers stay in office simply by ignoring the letter or spirit of the law. Some veteran leaders, as democracy watchdog Freedom House points out, reset the clock, evading term limits by arguing that the restrictions in new constitutions do not apply retroactively. Others use what has been called a “legislative assist”, among them Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev, who as far back as 2007 used a loyalist legislature to push through constitutional amendments that exempted him — and only him, as the first president of independent Kazakhstan – from a two-term limit.

Other aspiring “leaders for life”, Freedom House says, have turned to referendums – rigged if necessary – to extend their rule. The options are surprisingly varied, which brings us back to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has now occupied the Kremlin for going on two decades. While it may seem a long way off, the question of whether Putin retains power after 2024, when his current term ends, is the key question of Russian politics today. The outcome will have a major influence in shaping international affairs and policies.

As Leonid Bershidsky, columnist with the media company Bloomberg, recently pointed out, constitutional limits in Russia – just as in parts of Africa – are not what they are in other places. In effect, the Kremlin controls the Russian parliament to an extent that makes it possible to change the constitution at any moment, making Putin president for life.

“That ‘nuclear option’, however, is anathema to Putin, who, despite persistent election rigging in his favour, insists on democratic legitimacy as the basis for his rule,” explained Bershidsky in an article last month.

Like many Russia watchers, Bershidsky is intrigued by how none of the relatively legitimate scenarios for keeping Putin in power past 2014 look comfortable to the Russian leader right now.

The pressure on Putin has lately been compounded by increasing protests on the streets of Moscow challenging the government over the rejection of independent candidates’ applications for the city’s council elections. The Moscow protests are part of a trend of local demonstrations showing a growing defiant stance against Putin’s managed democracy.

One Russian media outlet has even reported that the Kremlin believed the protests were being backed by foreign influences intent on starting a “colour revolution”, a reference to protests that have overturned governments in other post-Soviet republics.

EVEN as Putin runs out of palatable options for prolonging his reign beyond the constitutional limits, Russian democrats know not to get their hopes, up as he undoubtedly remains in charge. That said, as a New York Times (NYT) editorial pointed out last week, leaders of post-Soviet states have typically lost their grip on power by making one of two big mistakes The first mistake is brazen manipulation of elections. The second is official impunity – above all, brutality by law enforcement agencies.

“Few things make people quite so mad. The so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 were all touched off by phony vote counts and other electoral fraud,” the NYT observed.

Faced with such challenges to his “soft dictatorship” and desire to stay in power, Putin has only a few options. One might be to push for Russia’s merger with neighbouring Belarus. Such a manoeuvre would make it possible for Putin to head up the unified country.

According to Bloomberg analysts Bershidsky, another would be for Putin to do what he did in 2008, letting a dependable ally, Dmitry Medvedev, run for president and staying on as prime minister to sit out a presidential term as required by the constitution. But Putin these days has perhaps fewer people in the Kremlin’s inner circle that he can trust, unlike back then.

Only time will tell which direction Putin’s desire to stay in power might take him. Around the world, of course, not all leaders resort to unscrupulous or ruthless methods for their longevity.

As Freedom House observes: “In some cases, these rulers have earned their long tenures through relatively free elections and remained within constitutional bounds.

“In the vast majority, however, a single leader has stayed in power by abusing, weakening, or completely overriding key democratic institutions.”

In many cases their long reigns begin to resemble those of kings and sultans. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once described as the “inventor of 21st-century populism”, is a point in case. Yesterday, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, president of Equatorial Guinea, marked 40 years in power. Even if he should stand down, it’s said that he has already been grooming his 51-year-old son and current vice-president Teodorin to take over the top job.

Certain leaders, it appears, find it near impossible to relinquish power completely. It was another African long-time ruler, former president Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, who once declared that he would rule for “one billion years” if God wills it, and that only God can set term limits. Sadly, some, it would seem, are only too willing to endorse that view.